Archive for May, 2011

Hope for Pakistan

Pakistan is a mystery to the world and confusing to its own people. Ever since the demise of Osama bin Laden on May 2nd, new questions have surfaced about how things work. Lately, images of an aging sheikh watching videos of past speeches and practicing new ones (with his beard dyed black), not to mention a stash of pornography on one computer, present a far less glorified figure than previously thought. Pakistanis themselves are engaged in deep soul-searching and increasingly aware of conflicting interests: moderates versus fundamentalists, mosques versus the military and burqas versus high fashions. Unfortunately, trust between the United States and Pakistan is at an all-time low. One is viewed as a bully intruding into the affairs of a sovereign state; the other as skilled in the art of duplicity.

This article builds on previous research that traces the roots of Islamic resurgence and documents concurrent receptivity to the gospel. Since September 11, 2001, particularly during the last four years, Pakistan has become more radicalized. Today it is thought to have more terrorists per square mile than any place on earth. We may never know for sure how Osama bin Laden could stay hidden so long but we can be sure that God is at work. In the midst of Islamic slogans, brutality, bloodshed and denial, Pakistani Muslims are coming to faith.

The People
Pakistanis experience the reality of war, sorrow, devastation and a cruel sense of injustice on a daily basis. Last July, the UN said her humanitarian crisis due to flooding was worse than the combined effects of the three worst natural disasters to strike in the past decade, including the Tsunami and major earthquakes that devastated Kashmir and Haiti. Typically, rain in Pakistan is spread over three months, but last year it fell in one week. Muslim and non Muslim friends with whom we had lived and worked suffered. A former pastor and his family escaped with nothing except the clothes on their backs. The city where we lived for twenty-three years became an island, surrounded by water on all sides.

Despite such hardships, the people are warm-hearted, colorfully dressed, straightforward, hospitable and willing to talk about God as easily as the latest cricket match. Remembering different ones brings tears to my eyes. For example, a widow, befriended by my wife (who is not a believer but still keeps in touch), had the unenviable task of trying to feed and clothe ten children and getting them through school. An elderly tribal woman, who trusted Christ through the ministry of a missionary nurse, accepted and trusted me as a brother. Contrary to local custom, she would extend both of her weathered hands in greeting.

Historical, political and religious realities
When the new nation was born at midnight on August 14, 1947, Indian Muslims looked confidently toward a home of their own. They depended on British protection en route to their new homeland and assumed the subcontinent’s breakup would hurt India more than Pakistan. They trusted Muslim leaders to govern wisely. They believed Islam would overcome ethnic barriers at home and ensure military victory abroad. Contrary to such high hopes, exactly the opposite has taken place over the last six decades as socially conservative, economically unsound, and politically unpopular governments have been legitimized. The “Islam in danger” slogan has been a recurring theme since the nation was born as every flagging regime appealed to it for support.

In 1956 it was named “Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” becoming the first-ever modern Islamic state, but it was a far cry from the pluralistic democratic state envisioned by its founder in 1947. Successive leaders have repeatedly sought legitimacy by attempting to combine religion and politics with disastrous results, as both have suffered, and the country has gained a reputation for instability, chaos and confusion.

In the past, since Pakistan has been more worried about India than militants close at hand, the military has officially opposed al-Qaeda, but turned a blind eye to the Taliban. For years jihadis have been useful to Pakistan in fighting a proxy war with India over disputed Kashmir, and any fear of Islamic extremism was outstripped by deep distrust of America. Pakistan-US relations have been less than satisfactory as each pursued its own agenda: the United States fighting communism and Pakistan fearing it would eventually be run over by its arch enemy India.

Today, if Ambassador Richard Holbrooke were alive, he would encourage the United States to view the death of Osama bin Laden as an opportunity for diplomacy, particularly in light of a nuclear arsenal in Pakistan that is forging forward at an alarming rate. He was aware of their duplicity, but poured out his soul, attempting to mend fences, and in so doing earned some trust from Pakistani generals. Holbrooke understood the troubled relationship, including the fact that in 1989 Americans essentially abandoned Pakistan. After supporting the Mujahidin against the Soviets, the United States walked away.

Coming to Faith
On the positive side, in the midst of extremely adverse circumstances, Pakistanis are turning to Christ. The author’s previous research found that at the height of Islamization Muslims were more open to the good news. Amazingly, it was after General Zia ul-Haqq enforced the rigid rules of Islamic law in the late 1970s that greater openness to the Gospel became apparent. Alongside Islamic resurgence, numbers of Bibles requested through the Pakistan Bible Society and numbers of Bible correspondence students rose dramatically. When the author interviewed thirty-two Pakistani former Muslims in 1995, nearly all said, “Islam’s harshness is driving Muslims to Christ.” Seventy-five percent of the respondents viewed Islamization in an extremely bad light and all of them listed ideological, political, religious, and economic conflicts as issues influencing their decision.

Other Muslims bluntly stated that the call to prayer, “come to prayer, come to salvation,” haunted them and their uncertainty about eternal life was compounded by a tradition in which Muhammad confessed he could not even save Fatimah, his own daughter. In contrast, the Bible gave assurance of salvation through Christ, who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Muslim youth were upset, because when they went to the maulvi (religious cleric) they were not given satisfactory answers to sincere inquiries. Instead, he was only interested in law, not pastoral counseling. Authoritarianism clashed with a desire for freedom and many were attracted by this promise,” Come unto me … and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Currently, more than ever, Pakistanis are choosing to follow Jesus because of their disappointment with Islam. Extremists are creating collateral damage to themselves and their religion. Through the type of Islam observed God is using the wrath of Muslims to praise Him. I believe that in the next twenty years millions and millions of Pakistani Muslims will come to faith.

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Most responses to the piece in Christianity Today last week, “Do not gloat over the death over the death of Osama bin Laden” were positive, but one long-time friend of CIU took issue with a couple of points. His statements (italicized) and Dr. Larson’s comments are posted below:

There is a picture collection showing the faces of the 343 brave firefighters who plunged into the inferno and gave their lives to rescue the terrified victims on 9/11. The pictures bring tears to your eyes. May I respectfully take issue with a couple of the good professor’s points? He says: “the billionaire could have spent his life in luxury but he chose to live in poverty and hardship for a cause, albeit a false one. He lived in caves and hideouts and was constantly on the run. And we must ask ourselves: Are we as Christians willing to sacrifice for the cause we say we believe in?” I’d rather not compare my commitment to Christ to a monster who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people. This contemptible man set no example of any kind for me.

I do not want to minimize the tremendous sacrifice of brave firefighters who gave their lives to rescue people nearly ten years ago. Neither was I suggesting that Osama bin Laden was not an evil person. What I was referring to was his commitment not his character. It turns out that at least for part of the time, he was living a softer life than we could have imagined, but that does not alter the fact that some Muslims who have very little of this world’s earthly goods are totally committed to a cause that is far less worthy than ours. We are recipients and custodians of a gospel that most Muslims have never had an opportunity to hear with understanding. For that cause, the Apostle Paul said he had “suffered the loss of all things” and went so far as to say he was willing to be “damned” [meaning spend eternity in hell] if this would help fellow Jews believe and be saved. Yet an unnamed evangelical said [of Osama bin Laden], “Welcome to hell.” Bin Laden is in hell but through our prayers and loving witness we can be instrumental in saving other Muslims from a similar fate.

One strong motivating factor for evangelization is a realization that all of us have a little of bin Laden within us. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Bin Laden is in hell, but were it not for the grace of God, we’d all end up there and Jesus’ response to people in his day who had the idea that dreadful punishments had been meted out to the worst possible sinners was to remind them that they needed to repent, lest they perish (Luke 13:1-4). America also needs to repent for her sins.

The professor said: “First, bin Laden has been irrelevant in most of the Muslim world for many years and his calls for violence have long since been dismissed.” Since ObL’s plotting of murder has tapered off recently, he is no longer accountable for what he did in the past? For decades after WW2, Israel hunted down Nazi war criminals and brought them to justice. When we look at the Cross, we realize how important justice is to God. Sin must be paid for. It can’t be overlooked just because I don’t sin as much as I used to. No, let’s not celebrate in the streets. But let us be truly thankful for justice. Civil government, according to Paul in Romans 13, is God’s tool, by the power of the sword, “to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”

I fully agree with the killing of Osama bin Laden and throwing his body into the Arabian Sea. To me, this was not so much an act of justice but of retribution. It was the right thing to do. There was a global sigh of relief that the one who caused so much pain can no longer plan another attack on American soil or anywhere else. It was also an act of prevention, because as time goes on, it is increasingly evident that a wealth of information is being gleaned. From my reading of the Pakistani press these revelations are the cause of deep soul-searching. This is good for the entire country and could even turn out for the furtherance of the gospel as more Pakistani Muslims turn away from the religious fanaticism that Osama bin Laden espoused.

I hope I’m still a friend of CIU!

These were my personal views but many associated with Columbia International University thanked me. One said: “Only one man’s death can bring true peace” and another said he said he read it with a tear in his eye. Perhaps their comments capture how God feels about the death of Osama bin Laden: “I will have mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt. 9:13), or, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ez. 33: 11).

Warren Larson
Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies at Columbia International University

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Remember how Americans felt after watching the jubilation after September 11? I was asked by Christianity Today to weigh in on how Christians should respond to bin Laden’s death.

I was teaching a class on Islam the morning of September 11, 2001. But, like most Americans, I was too stunned to know how to respond. This morning, almost 10 years later, hearing on NPR that the mastermind of that attack had been killed in a Pakistani town close to where one of our children had been born, the words of Solomon came to mind: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls” (Prov. 24:17).

So I cringed to hear of jubilation in Washington and New York, as it was a stark reminder of how offended we were by some reactions by Muslims on 9-11. President Obama announced the surgical raid by Navy Seals in sombertones, but there were bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” near Ground Zero and scenes of Americans dancing in the streets. In contrast to celebration, I would like to suggest three alternate reactions.

First, bin Laden has been irrelevant in most of the Muslim world for many years, and his calls for violence have long since been dismissed. This was abundantly clear through the uprisings that have rocked the Middle East this spring. It was never said the revolution was taking place because bin Laden called for it, or that his was the pathway to much-needed change. Throughout it has been an Arab revolution, not an Islamic revolution.

Second, rather than rejoice, we need to pray for Christians in a country that has been so torn apart by terrorism. Since al-Qaeda and affiliates are still very much alive, a chapter may have been closed, but not the book. A Pakistani Christian who is close to our family just recently came under attack. Previously threatened for his publications and his testimony as a former Muslim, less than one week ago the family car was fired on in the ancient city of Lahore and one of his children critically injured. The boy is expected to live, but pray that Pakistani Christians will be salt and light at this crucial time.

Finally, we must bear in mind that bin Laden the billionaire could have spent his life in luxury, but he chose to live in poverty and hardship for a cause, albeit a false one. He lived in caves and hideouts and was constantly on the run. We must ask ourselves: Are we as Christians willing to sacrifice for the cause we say we believe in?

Warren Larson is director of the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies and a faculty member of Columbia International University Seminary and School of Missions.

“Speaking Out” is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.

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